Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
If the so-called “worship movement” has accomplished anything, it has helped to make Christian worship more emotionally expressive. Where some of the “frozen chosen” (I’m from the Reformed tradition, for the record) used to stand in icy staidness, faithful feelings are now expressed with hands upraised and hearts attendant to an intimacy with the person of Jesus Christ who becomes present to us (somehow) in worship. I’d call that a “win” in many ways. The bread and butter of contemporary songwriters (and, as some have argued, what rock-inflected musical styles do well) has been to help worshippers feel something. That’s often been achieved and expressed by inviting worshippers into the personal piety and conviction of the songwriter enshrined in the lyrics and music of the worship songs. This is also a “win” in my estimation. [Side note: this is part of why worship leaders publicly losing their faith is so scandalizing!]
But to what end are these feelings faithful, and how do we know? Only that they are true to us personally or only to our congregation? Or is there some other metric for evaluation? Some other sounding board against which are feelings can be heard and felt?
I think we find some help when we make it clear what it is, more exactly, that our feelings are responding to.
I’ve noticed something that I want to lift up and laud for other songwriters out there: songs that tell God’s story in salvation history–not just their personal history of deeply felt, and deeply faithful, feelings toward God. Even better are songs that bind up personal stories into the bigger and more communal salvation history–songs that re-express the love for a God who we only know is for us because God has always been for us. There is a particularity and a specificity to that history. We find its contours in Christian scripture.
This has been done in every age of the church’s song and it’s happening now, too. I’m thinking of incredibly popular songs like Hillsong’s “Oceans” from a few years back as well as their more recent song “Another in the Fire.” Hillsong isn’t, of course, the only group doing this. But what’s noticeable to me about these songs is that they’ve taken the biblical story and put the singer alongside the biblical characters. It’s a classic way of reading and interpreting scripture. It’s typology for today. It’s like a contemporary, musical, Ignatian Spiritual Exercise. As such, it’s pretty, well, orthodox.
A Common Complaint
It’s a common complaint in nearly every generation to decry the biblical (il)literacy of “people today” and express the need for deeper catechesis. Whether our generation is worse than any other generation is, well, debatable. In any case, maybe we need to double down on the power of singing to internalize scripture—and not at the expense of finding faithful feelings for God. We can tap into this power for more than the explication of dogma and doctrines and open up the scriptures as powerful stories that elicit our response; deeper than purple-prose paraphrases of prooftexted Psalms to songs that help us experience our place in the contours of God’s story of the salvation of all of creation. From Genesis to Revelation. From the first Adam to the second coming of the New Adam so that even this author (whose name happens to be Adam) can more fully sing–and feel!–the great song of God’s salvation.
It’s not an issue of “what’s been lost” but of what we stand to gain: faithful responses to the God whose story is told in scripture and who is revealed in Jesus Christ.